“Grief, I’ve learned, is really just love. It’s all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief is just love with no place to go.” -- Jamie Anderson
Grief is part of the 50/50 of life. If we love, at some point we will need to grieve. We grieve at anything our brain considers a loss: a breakup, a divorce, a death, the end of a friendship, a job loss. We also grieve when we lose the future we were envisioning. This can be due to injury, illness, another person's choices, and much more.
Sometimes we grieve over things that may seem silly to others, or even to ourselves. For example, when my gym closed permanently during COVID, I grieved that loss. It's just a gym, but it had been part of my morning routine for seven years. I grieved all the faces I would no longer see, the daily check ins with friends, a huge part of my life that I really loved. When I think about it today, I still feel a little melancholy.
When I walk clients through grief, they want to know how to make it stop. Since anyone who works with me quickly learns that emotions are caused by thoughts, they want a different thought to think.
I never give them one.
Some emotions are necessary, and the pain of grief needs to be felt and processed. You can't push it away by thinking your way out of it. We want to grieve. It's part of feeling alive.
My father passed away recently. That is a grief unlike any I have ever felt. It's not only the deep sadness and the hollow of a loss, but for me it has been manifesting as minor panic attacks. I'll be fine going through my day, and then something that reminds me of the loss comes up, and I lose my breath, my heart starts to beat quickly, I feel a little nauseated, pressure builds, and my eyes start scanning the room, looking for something to anchor me. The dominant thought that usually accompanies this feeling is a screaming, "Where is my dad?"
When this happens, I step back from whatever I'm doing. I leave the room if necessary and find somewhere quiet. I acknowledge and notice all the different thoughts that come up, and I allow myself to just feel what I feel. I notice all the tightness, the emptiness, and then I just sit with it. I breathe into it and try to feel it all. I name it. "This is grief. This is the part of life where I feel grief. I am just going to sit here with my grief and let it be my companion."
Sometimes it helps me to visualize myself carrying that grief with me in my pocket as I go throughout my day. If it's a smaller swell of emotion, I pat my pocket and just think, "There it is, there's my grief. It's just going to come with me today."
This is powerful, because here's the truth. There is a part of grief that feels ok, natural, and to some people at some point in their grief journey -- if they are processing it well -- there can even be a bittersweetness to it. The very worst parts of grief come not from the grief itself, but from resisting the grief.
When we push against it and eat it away, or drink it away, or sleep it away, or Netflix it away, or just decide that we WILL NOT feel it, we may get some relief temporarily, but when it comes back, it comes back harder and longer. Over time all that pent-up grief can cause fear, anxiety, numbness, sleep disturbances. It can also cause headaches, muscle pain, digestive issues and fatigue.
These symptoms are similar to acute grief, but with retained grief they last much longer. For an intense loss, waves of grief may never completely go away, but they should lessen in frequency. You will know for sure you are holding in your grief if it gets worse over time rather than better. If this has been going on a very long time, you may need a therapist to help you resolve it.
When a client has walked through grief and is processing it well, then and only then do we begin to think of ways to reframe some of the loss -- to think some different thoughts. What we're doing is trying to find meaning.
Sometimes we do this by recalling fond memories and finding gratitude for the time we had. Other times it can be finding a reason for the loss that feels acceptable. Depending on what is being grieved, that can look like having faith that this loss will lay the groundwork for something even better, or give a push for more self-reliance, more education, or new opportunities. After deaths for religious people, it may be picturing the loved one being reunited with parents, a spouse or other family members.
I have a son who is serving as a missionary for my church. That can be hard work, and my son was struggling -- until one day, literally overnight, he suddenly wasn't. He was feeling less anxious, finding more meaning in his work. It was a complete 180. A couple of weeks after my father died, as I was thinking of the loss, it occurred to me that the day he passed away was the same day that my son had this miraculous change.
For me, finding some meaning in the loss looked like believing that my son's grandfather is watching over him, helping him. In some ways I feel like the timing of my father's death was because his body had deteriorated to the point that he could be more helpful to his family in death than he could in life. I 100% believe that's true. AND there's a part of me that knows maybe it's not true -- maybe there was another purpose that I can't see. I can hold both of those thoughts at the same time.
I have learned, though, that I can believe whatever I want to believe -- whatever feels true to me and helps me be my best self.
And so can you.